Carson Explains What Makes a Good Commentary
Some of you see that word and want to yawn. Others see it and want to cheer. You hope to collect lots of them, sets of them. There's an Amazon Wish List to prove it. But commentaries aren't meant to be collected. They're meant to be consulted—week in and week out as you prepare to unlock the treasure chest of God's Word to God's people once again.
In honor of the recently released seventh edition of D. A. Carson's New Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic), we asked The Gospel Coalition's co-founder and president a few questions about commentaries—what makes a good one, what they can't do, common pitfalls, how much time we should give them, and more.
What makes for a good commentary? How should an average pastor determine which commentaries to purchase?
Good all-round commentaries help readers think their way through the text—which requires adequate handling of words, sentences, flow of thought, genre, theological presuppositions, knowledge of historical setting, and, ideally, a commentary writer who is humble and of a contrite spirit and who trembles at God's Word. But most commentaries do not do all these things (and other things—e.g., interaction with some other commentaries) equally well. That is one of the reasons one is usually wise to consult at least two or three commentaries with different emphases.
Most commentaries (though there are some exceptions) are quite poor at integrating exegesis of the text at hand with whole-Bible biblical theology. This is a huge lacuna. If you run from exegesis directly to application, you will often get things wrong and tend to drift toward privatized applications. In other words, it is important to understand any part of God's Word in terms of the book, corpus, and entire canon, to grasp how texts drive toward Jesus and the gospel, before too much application is attempted.
More broadly, most commentaries can't do much toward faithful and telling application. Although the biblical text (explained by the commentary) ought to have a major say in shaping your sermon outline, few commentaries will help you at that point—and most of those that try to do so are not very good. Reading commentaries will not necessarily turn you into a good exegete: that requires more focused reading of the text itself.
What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the use of commentaries?
To name a few: (1) If you read the commentaries too soon in the process, instead of wrestling with the text itself, you will not become a skilled reader, and all your material will feel secondhand. (2) If you read the commentaries too late in the process, or, worse, not at all, you are failing to tap into generations of stimulating thought undertaken by Christians and others who have come before you, so you may overlook important things that you should not miss. (3) If you rely too heavily on commentaries at the expense of continuing reading in biblical, historical, systematic, and pastoral theology, your sermons will tend to be reduced to running commentaries, instead of carrying the weight of the burden of a message from the text at hand. (4) Avoid using commentaries as a substitute for careful reading and importunate intercession. One of the things we need in our preaching is unction—and commentaries, in themselves, cannot provide that.
Generally speaking, how much of a preacher's preparation time should be spent using commentaries?
In the early days of your ministry, not more than 60 to 70 percent; as you mature, not more than 50 percent. Any decently trained seminary graduate knows how to do reasonably responsible exegesis. The hardest part of sermon preparation is not exegesis and commentary study (assuming you had good training), but structure, writing, shaping, transitions, flow, vocabulary, introductions, and conclusions.
If a preacher only has time to consult, say, two commentaries per passage, what principles would you give to help guide his choice?
Consult different kinds of commentaries (e.g., at least one on the original text [if the preacher can read Greek and Hebrew], partly so that your tools will remain sharp. In all language work, use it or lose it.). Another commentary might be stronger in actual exposition. Ideally at least one of them will say important things about the genre and structure of thought in the biblical book being studied. Ideally one of them will reflect on the history of interpretation (e.g., what did the church fathers say? what did the Reformers say?); ideally one of them will be strong on words and syntax. Ideally at least one will have been written by someone who transparently hungers to be mastered by the Word of God. I should add that all commentaries are written from some vantage point or other, and it is important to learn what that vantage point is and make allowance for it. Suddenly, the limitation to two commentaries seems unreasonable!